As people who became parents in ‘mature puberty’ they did not know about the pains of childbirth or the unbearable burdens of parenthood, which they would have to bear while enduring what the author calls “the inhumanity of the social whip.” Devkota says that the mother was starved for many winter days, and he asks the reader, “Can you doom human beings to famished wolfdom in your society or your state and expect normal standards of moral behaviour from them?” He blames the affair on politicians and the state and says that it merely indicates the measure of dehumanisation they have inflicted upon the people: “the State is reflected in the child-eating parent as clearly as a he-bear or a she-bear might recognise himself or herself in a clear pool of jungle waters after an orgy of blood.” Many of the essays are marked by religious scepticism and a remarkable degree of liberalism in matters of faith, which almost borders at times on humanism.with a heart devoid of feeling; for in the high fever of political fervour those days we thought that the nation must be in any case served at the cost of a family.'” He was allowed to return to Kathmandu three years later, on the basis of a “strangely worded permit, with abundant verbal jugglery” which insinuated that he was seriously ill with “symptoms parallel to those of insanity” and would be permitted to return “on condition that he no longer continued the public expression of his political vagaries and mutterings.” Elsewhere in the book, he recalls how at an earlier stage in his life he acquired and rode a bicycle at a time when commoners were not allowed even to ride horses in Kathmandu because it might set them above the heads of their Rana rulers.
Its writers have lost sight of “the healthier side of the genius of our language” and they have used it as a mirror for self-admiration instead of working to secure a readership.
He does seem to forget or ignore that fact that in 1958 only a tiny proportion of the population was literate, but he retains great faith in the democratising power of literature: “We can make the masses read us, if we read their innermost visions first.” Devkota satirises Nepali society whimsically by investing certain animals with stereotypical human characteristics.
The Cat is aloof, a ‘jungle refugee’, never quite fully domesticated and never quite at home, in the writer’s words, “like the member of a wild royal family in decay” with “the look of mortified aristocracy fallen on evil days.” He prefers dogs but admits that they are more sycophantic than cats: the cat knows that “an unconditional surrender to another species is a biological mistake” and is contemptuous of the servitude that typifies the dog, which Devkota says has “the military mentality of palace sentinels.” The cat is much cleverer: “outwardly acquiescent and inwardly revolutionary”, but the Dog has divinised Man too much: “he has learned it from our top castes, this life of favour, this luxurious existence of grace.” Meanwhile, the Donkey is beaten, oppressed and treated with contempt as an untouchable, but cannot be made to admit the wisdom of human ways and has a sagacity of his own.
And the Cow is the “Race-Mother of the Hindus”, protected by what Devkota dubs “the Great Cow Creed”, and conceptualised as holy by an “overwrought mystic imagination.” Devkota protests against the “cow attitude” which holds the cow up as “the Mother Queen of mysticism and religious wars” and looks to the “healthier day” when “our Hindu heat will have cooled down to a more rational recognition of her….” Several essays are distinguished by their passionate anger, and the depictions of the Ranas and their fall from power are particularly powerful.
I think it must be rare for any voice to emerge from a nation’s past and speak to its present with such passion and clarity.
Devkota led a delegation of Nepali writers to the Afro-Asian Writers Conference in Tashkent in 1958, and this experience informs and influences many of the essays.
But these are minor flaws when set beside passages such as Devkota’s rhapsodic description of the coming of the rainclouds to the baking plains of north India.
But the most extraordinary feature of this collection of essays, surely, is its powerful resonance for present-day Nepal.
“Cycling was the first political experience I acquired before I became an actual revolutionary against Ranarchy.” These fragments shed further light on a story that is already well known. I recall reading one of the essays, many years ago after it somehow got into print in a Nepali student journal, and being astounded by its author’s mastery of the English language.
Reading these essays in recent days, I wondered again how it was that a man who barely set foot outside Nepal until his self-imposed exile in Benares could have acquired such fluency.